My Last Duchess

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How does Browning tell the story of “My Last Duchess” in the first thirteen lines?

In the opening lines of “My Last Duchess”, Browning introduces his speaker, the Duke of Ferrara, who sets the stage to tell the story of his late wife to the Count’s emissary. As a dramatic monologue, Browning’s identity is dissolved into his character’s voice and persona; the first-person narration of the Duke dominates the perspective of the story; the emissary becomes a silent listener, whose presence is only known because he is addressed as “you” and “Sir” by the speaker throughout the poem. The relationship between the speaker and the listener within the narrative thus sets up an analogous relationship between the poet, Browning, and his audience outside of the narrative. Like the emissary, we are silent; however, unlike him, as readers, we are made aware of the fact that the Duke is to be distinguished from the poet as a fictional creation, and that in turn, we are to distinguish ourselves from the listener’s silent presence; we are not the “you” to whom the narrative is being directed. The implicit theatricality of the narrative is emphasised through Browning’s inclusion of the word, “FERRARA” before the poem begins. The script-like nature of the monologue removes Browning from his narration, and thus distances us from its reception; the actual story of the Duchess is located within the Duke’s inner narrative, and the story of the Duke’s external narrative is located within Browning’s poem.

The dramatic irony of the story is held in tension by the fact that the Duke reveals more to us as readers than he knows to be telling his listener. Though he is able to suspend the disbelief of his listener, as he directs the emissary’s eyes to the painting of the Duchess and asks him “please” to “sit and look at her”, he is ultimately unable to suspend our own; the self-reflexive nature of the poem, which is sustained in Browning’s heroic couplets, forces us to interpret the...
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